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Strategic thinking is a popular buzzword in the public sector. When I worked in local government, everyone from elected officials to staff to citizens emphasized the importance of thinking strategically. Whether it was developing a schedule for capital projects at our wastewater treatment facility or deciding to institute paid parking on Main Street, we needed to employ a strategic approach. Strategic thinking is great, but what does it actually mean? And more importantly, how can public leaders think strategically to tackle problems that their organizations face?

Strategic thinking is the deployment of critical thinking skills to solve complex problems and plan for the future.

Public leaders often find themselves bogged down with day-to-day obligations (what some refer to as “putting out fires”). Organizations become so consumed with handling the most pressing issues of the day that they fail to adopt a proactive, big-picture approach. Strategic thinking pushes leaders to dig deeper and ask why a problem is happening. Rather than simply reacting to issues as they arise, strategic thinking creates space for future-oriented problem-solving.

Consider this hypothetical example: the Town of Mountaineerland is a rapidly growing community. The Town’s Public Services Center, which houses key operational departments, is overcrowded. There is insufficient office space, storage is extremely limited, and members of the public often do not have a place to sit when meetings are held at the facility. Officials know that a renovation and/or expansion of the Public Services Center is needed. But how should they plan for this project? What factors should they consider?

In this scenario, an approach to consider is strategic thinking! An integral component of this approach is to plan for tomorrow and not just solve today’s problems. Town officials will of course need to renovate the Public Services Center to accommodate current demand, but they need to do more than that. So instead of “putting out the fire” of today, the Town should introduce proactive critical thinking to strategize about what their needs will be in the future. Here are just a few of the many strategic thinking skills the Town can employ:

1. Learn from past mistakes. One of the biggest missteps a leader can take is not learning from past experience. Mistakes happen in any organization. However, some organizations have yet to discover that mistakes are not an occurrence that should be ignored or swept under the rug. In fact, every mistake is a learning opportunity. The key for organizations is to foster a culture of curiosity where leaders learn from unsuccessful outcomes. In our example, Town officials are unhappy with the lack of adequate office space for employees. Instead of being ashamed of this circumstance or ignoring it altogether, the Town leadership should analyze previous decisions and determine why the Public Services Center is insufficient for the Town’s needs. The lessons we learn from mistakes will often save us from committing the same error again.

2. Anticipate what the future might look like and actively plan for it in the present. No one can predict the future, of course, but everyone can scan their environment for harbingers of change. Sometimes the driving forces behind change originate from within the organization itself. But in many cases, changes in the external environment lead to a new and different world within which an organization must operate. Returning to our example, Mountaineerland experienced rapid growth that probably altered the character of the community itself. An effective Town leader would not have been blindsided by these changes but instead would have anticipated them through monitoring key indicators such as the community’s real estate market.

3. Be prepared to make quick decisions. We are all familiar with analysis paralysis, or the phenomenon where leaders find themselves unable to make a decision because they become stuck on analyzing an array of potential options. Developing a systematic, data-driven approach to decision-making is good, but sooner or later a decision must be made. In the public sector, leaders often have to make quick decisions in uncertain situations based on incomplete information. A water main breaks at 3:00 in the morning and water cascades down a busy road. Leaders cannot afford to think through every possible option in this scenario. They must act quickly and make a decision.

Learning from past mistakes, anticipating the future, and being prepared to make quick decisions are three strategic thinking skills that any public leader can employ. Oftentimes strategic thinking can be hard to practice consistently in an environment where the knee-jerk reaction is simply to “put out the fire” rather than ask why it continues to blaze. However, public leaders must resist this temptation and employ strategic thinking skills to amplify their organization’s impact.